Monday, June 7, 2010

Thoughts on Gospel Ministry, Part 9

This is a continuation of Joseph John Dymond's letters to "The Friend" of London in 1892. Part 8 was here.

Letter IX.

“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

The general survey of which has been taken in the present series of letters of the conditions affecting the exercise of Gospel Ministry amongst us will have made it evident that there is much earnest and important work awaiting the attention of such a body as has been already proposed. And the character of that work is such as to confirm the belief that it will be best accomplished by persons who are themselves ministers of experience, assisted probably by a few Friends selected for the purpose from amongst the appointed elders.

A precedent for such an appointment, with the functions of taking counsel respecting the needs of different meetings as to ministry, watching over and fostering the coming forth and growth of newly-called ministers, and assisting one another in acquiring the knowledge so valuable in the preacher’s work in these days, is found in the original constitution of the “Morning Meeting” in London. Though the duties of that body now chiefly consist of the exercise of care over ministers coming from abroad to visit the Metropolis and its vicinity, and of judging of the “concerns” of our own ministers to travel in the service of the Gospel in foreign parts, it formerly filled a wider sphere, taking a close and practical oversight of the entire service of the ministry in and around London, and forming a council of reference to which were submitted all books and other documents written by Friends before publication.

As regards the mode in which the proposed Preachers’ Meetings should be originated, I may say that it appears to me to be desirable that in the first instance they should arise out of the action of Monthly and Quarterly Meetings on Ministry and Oversight, in districts where it is felt that there is an open field for them.

“Any subjects which belong to the teaching and shepherding of the flock” are committed to those meetings by their constitution (Church Government, chap. 1 sec. 8) and where appointed, the members of the Preachers’ Meetings would in effect be committees of the meetings appointing them.

It seems almost needful to remark at this point that any useful action in the direction indicated necessarily presuppose the continuance in some form or other of the Society’s long-established practice of “recording” ministers – that is of placing on record its approval of their ministry. Without this all attempts to place the service of the Gospel on a better footing will be vain.

I regret very much to know of cases in which dear friends with an undoubted call to the work, and who “have given proof of their ministry,” have refused to submit themselves to the judgment of their Monthly Meetings in this matter, and have thus not only suffered disadvantage themselves, but have hindered the action of the Church as affecting others. It is not for me to impugn their motives, though I deeply deplore their action as being inconsistent with the Gospel order and with the true interests of the cause they have at heart. I cannot but think that in some cases the objection arises from some misapprehension as to the meaning and effect of the process.

In a former letter satisfaction was expressed with the change made in 1876 with regard to the appointment of elders, when the selection, instead of being a lifelong one, was in future to be made for three years only. I am, and have long been of the judgment that it would be a desirable change if the act of recording approval of a minister were also open to revision periodically – say once in seven years. The same Divine Will that selects the instrument for service can lay it aside again. “Once a minister, always a minister,” is a principle nowhere taught in the New Testament that I am aware of. Under our present system a Friend may be conscious that his period of service is over – that the anointing no longer descends upon him – and it would be a relief to him to be discharged from the implied responsibility of bearing the title.

I am afraid it must also be added that there have been cases in which a Friend, who may formerly have preached with power and unction, has from some cause lost the heavenly afflatus, but continues to preach from long-formed habit only, and consequently not to edification.

It is true that it is in the power of the Church to take action in such cases; but this is very rarely done – perhaps never except in connection with some moral delinquency. How much more easy would it be to deal with such matters if a periodical revision of the list of ministers were the rule. These times of revision would also have the effect of bringing definitely before the Monthly Meetings the question whether there were any not yet on the approved list whose names might properly be added to it.

If I may here be allowed a personal allusion, I would say that more than once in my own history I have been on the point of resigning my position as recorded minister; not from any doubt as to my original call, nor on account of any apprehended disunity with my service but because I felt it to be so desirable that the Friends of my Monthly Meeting should have a definite opportunity of reconsidering their judgment after a few years’ observation.

If their approval had been re-affirmed, it would have afforded me encouragement (at times greatly needed) to persevere in the work. If otherwise, it would have enabled me to lay down with a clear conscience a responsibility which often seemed too great to bear. In any case it would have furnished an occasion for the bestowal of counsel, or the offering of useful suggestions which, in the absence of such an arrangement, have never reached me.

No allusion has hitherto been made in these letters to one subject of very grave importance, which is also a painful one, but must not on that account pass unnoticed. I suppose that hardly any Christian Society has ever existed for a long time without some experience of the trials attending the divergence on the part of some of the ministers from its recognized doctrines. The Society of Friends, throughout its entire history, seems to have been rather specially liable to troubles of this kind. The practice of our little Church has been to exercise great forbearance in such cases, and not to take action until compelled to do so. Even when disciplinary action is felt by a considerable number of the Friends composing a Monthly Meeting to be necessary, it may be found that some others are averse to it; and so, for the same of preserving a superficial, though unsubstantial, unity, nothing is done, and the holy cause of truth is allowed to suffer.

In order to probe this matter to the bottom, it would be needful to go into such questions as the existence and desirability of creeds, and to dive into other dark and troubled waters.

This would be foreign to my present purpose; and I must therefore confine myself to saying that I am unable to understand the attitude of mind which would deem it honourable or upright to retain the title and position of a minister in any religious denomination, whist teaching in its name opinions which are known to be out of harmony upon fundamental points with the professed doctrines of that denomination.

This periodical revision of ministers would, I think, be of some service to us in this connection. I would suggest that in all cases Monthly Meetings should have the assistance of committees of their Quarterly Meetings in making the revision.

Before concluding my remarks on that branch of the subject which has reference to remedial measures capable of being applied by the Society in the form of regulations, I must allude again to the mode of conducting the meetings for worship at Devonshire House, London, during the sittings of the Yearly Meeting. One of the rules of the Society is that the elders present shall meet at the close of each such meeting, for conference on the subject of the meeting just held, and in order to prepare a brief report upon it. In some recent years it has been the practice for two or three elders to occupy seats near the head of these meetings for worship, with the view of taking such action as they may think needful during the proceedings for the preservation of order. As this very mild display of authority has failed, after sufficiently prolonged trial, to attain what was aimed at, it seems needful that the arrangement should be revised, and, if possible, strengthened.

The principle upon which action is taken is the very correct one, that the Church is responsible, through its officers, for the maintenance of decorum in its public services. It will be the general desire that in doing what is found needful, the smallest amount of restraint consistent with efficiency should be laid upon the free exercise of spiritual gifts.

The proposition I have to make is, first, that the elders, together with the recorded ministers who intend to be present at the meetings for worship, shall meet before the hour for worship, that they shall together see to the suitable allocation of minister to two meeting-houses (with due regard, of course, to any indications of duty that may be felt), and shall nominate two or three of their number to be responsible for the orderly holding of each of the meetings; and second, that it shall be a strict regulation applicable to those particular meetings, that every person desiring to address the congregation or to offer vocal prayer, shall come to one of the raised benches at the head of the room in order to do so. It can hardly be doubted that great facility for the rapid and impulsive utterances which are often so trying is given by the practice of simply rising in one’s seat, unobserved except by the few immediately around; and I believe that the necessity of walking to the head of the room before beginning to speak would not only insure at least a few moments’ pause between one communication and another, but would afford a desirable test of the reality and urgency of the call to take part. It would also service as notice, sometimes useful, to those responsible for the meeting, that the Friend was desiring to speak.

Similar regulations, with any needful modifications, should be adopted in the larger gatherings at Westminster, and in the suburbs, during the Yearly Meeting weeks.

I must add that it appears to me to be only reasonable and consistent with simple courtesy, that when one or more Friends in the ministry, under religious concern, have obtained the appointment of special meetings for the public, or for particular classes of persons (such as young Friends,&c.), they should not be hindered in their service, even in the otherwise silent portions of the meeting, but other (unauthorised) individuals taking part; but should be allowed to conduct the meeting from beginning to end, both as to vocal engagements and as to silent intervals in the manner which they may feel directed to as being the right one.
Joseph John Dymond
Ilkley, August, 1892

Part 10 of this series is here.

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